The Best Tunes in Texas

To see the Old West at its most authentic while listening to country music at its finest, Douglas Rogers pulls on his cowboy boots and strides into the little town of Luckenbach.

Luckenbach, Texas is not easy to find. There are no signs to it on the Hill Country road between Austin and Fredericksburg as they're always being stolen by country music fans as mementos.

But turn down a single-lane dirt track off Highway 290, 75 miles west of Austin, drive past some vineyards and wheat fields, and there it is: five dusty tumbledown wood shacks with rusted iron roofs set under a canopy of oak trees.

There's a dance hall to one side; an out-house lavatory down by a creek, and hitching posts to tether your horse. A sign above a ramshackle porch reads: "U.S. Post Office, 1850."

It's not a post office but a general store, at the back of which is a tiny saloon with creaking wood floors and a vintage stove around which, on any given night of the week, cowboy musicians will pull on their dusty boots, pull out guitars, and strum country tunes over bottles of beer and bourbon. Willie Nelson might even wander in; Lyle Lovett's been known to pop by. The locals say you can't find a more laid-back place without being unconscious - and they have a point.

I had long thought Luckenbach a mythical place of country music folklore. It's the title of a classic 1977 Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ballad about leaving the hassle and stress of everyday life behind for a simpler place. Subtitled Back to the Basics of Love, the song became a massive hit in the 1970s, its chorus an unofficial Texan anthem:

"Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys,/ This successful life we're livin' got us feuding/ like the Hatfields and McCoys,/ Between

Hank Williams pain songs, Newberry's train songs and blue eyes cryin' in the rain/Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain't nobody feelin' no pain."

When, on a recent visit to Austin, I learned it was a real place in the nearby Hill Country, I jumped at the chance to see it.

The town was established in 1849 as a trading post for Comanche Indians and German pioneers who settled this part of Texas Hill Country and named after Carl Albert Luckenbach, the husband of the owner of the general store.

By the end of the 19th century it had all the buildings it has today, the community hall rebuilt in the 1930s as a dance hall. By the 1960s, though, trade had declined, and most of the residents had left. Its population was precisely three in 1971, when the writer, humourist and country music sage Hondo Crouch bought it with two friends for $30,000.

Hondo, a beloved Texas legend with a battered cowboy hat and piece of straw permanently fixed in his mouth, declared the town a "Free State of the Mind," named himself Mayor and "Clown Prince" and appointed his friends ambassadors to foreign countries. He poked fun at one illustrious neighbour - President Lyndon B Johnson - whose ranch, the so-called "Texas White House", was across the creek.

The town's reputation as a country music centre began in 1973, when Hondo's friend, the hard-boozing singer Jerry Jeff Walker and his Lost Gonzo Band recorded Viva Terlingua! in the dance hall. The album became a classic of the "Outlaw" country scene that had set itself up in opposition to the processed, commercial sound of Nashville.

It was Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, however, the leaders of the movement, who carved Luckenbach into country music legend. Back to the Basics of Love was a number-one country hit and reached the top 20 of the rock charts - though, bizarrely, Jennings had never actually been to Luckenbach when he recorded it.

The song's suggestion that we sell that "diamond ring, buy some boots and faded jeans and go away," hit a chord, and soon music fans and tourists were beating a path to the ramshackle doors.

The town was almost destroyed by the love. It became popular with motorcycle gangs, and when Willie Nelson held his annual July 4 picnics more than 15,000 people would turn up - too many for the town to cope with. Hondo never saw the commercialisation. He died in 1976, the town's ownership passing to his daughter and grandson, who still run it.

These days Luckenbach has returned to the gentle ethos of the song. The town occupies 10 acres, but the action centres on those five tumbledown shacks. An old egg-house and a warehouse next to it are business offices where staff book events for the dance hall, run a website, and put out a monthly newsletter - the Luckenbach Moon. Visitors can hire the dance hall - or the town - for parties, weddings, hen nights. "We close off the road and you get the whole place to yourself," says the manager, Neal Brown.

With its benches, bare roof beams, and wood ceiling fans, the dance hall has hardly changed since the 1930s. In January, Brown arranged a live rerecording of old songs with many of the original musicians, selling tickets in an online auction for $1 each - the same price it cost fans to watch Jerry Jeff Walker back in 1973. Other local acts appear during the week and on weekends, the hall catering to more than 200. The outhouse by the creek meanwhile has indoor plumbing for the first time.

Walk into the general store - a small statue of Hondo Crouch on a plinth outside - and you're back in the Old West. Goods are rung up on a vintage cash register; pots, pans, boots and spurs hang from the ceiling; and dust gathers on ancient boxes of soap, flour and starch on the shelves. A handwritten sign nailed to a shelf reads: "We Don't Call 9/11". It has a Colt Revolver hanging from it.

The bar is at the end of the store down some steps. It's a cold Monday evening when I arrive and a dozen men and women in cowboy hats and jeans are sipping beers, shooting the bull. Photographs of Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and dozens of other country stars adorn the walls. A poster reads: "God Bless Johnny Cash"; another: "Texas for Secession." "If you need credit," reads a sign by the bar, "You don't need a drink, you need a job". As a visitor it was hard to buy a drink: complete strangers kept buying them for me

At a small table in front of the stove, two grey-bearded cowboys and a sweet-voiced girl in jeans and cowboy hat were playing Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams songs. The scene was like a painting of the Old West; the strumming and singing too beautiful for words. Then a mobile phone rang.

"Damn," said one of the men, switching off his phone. "We don't need 'em. Did without 'em before. I could write you a letter." Then he paused. "Well, not really," he chuckled. "I don't write too good."

Where the locals love to two-step

Luckenbach is not the only cult country music location in Hill Country. Austin, which bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, has a number of old classics, while the historic town of Gruene, between Austin and San Antonio, is home to the oldest dance hall in the state.

Gruene Hall

Luckenbach's dance hall might be the state's most famous, but the town of Gruene had one first (1281 Gruene Rd; 830 606 1281; www.gruenehall.com). The hall, on a tree-covered hill overlooking the Guadeloupe river an hour south of Austin, has a fake gabled façade: the venue behind it is a long, narrow corrugated-iron roof barn with open sides covered in what looks like chicken wire. It is famous for its rockabilly, country and folk acts, and musicians play on a simple raised stage facing a 500-strong crowd sat at liquor-stained wood tables.

The hall, built in the 1870s, has helped launch the careers of George Strait, Lyle Lovett and many others. Its walls are covered with photographs of hundreds of musicians who have performed here, among them Townes van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Dixie Chicks.

Gruene is a destination in itself, with river rafting and canoe trips down the Guadeloupe; excellent barbecue shacks; and the historic Gristmill Restaurant, set in a century-old cotton gin, its outdoor deck tables on the cliffs overlooking the river. Lone Star Music Shop (www.lonestarmusic.com), on Gruene Road, is billed as "The Coolest Music Store in the World." You decide.

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